The unusually short career span for NFL players has long been a thorny issue among the players, the league and even fans of one of the most injury-prone leagues in sports. A pair of high-profile contract disputes during the 2018 season involving star players placed the topic front-and-center yet again.
But what more was there to say?
Starting in September, Denver-based national sports writer Eddie Pells and Global Sports Editor Michael Giarrusso brainstormed with the hope of breaking news during the week leading up to the Super Bowl – the most competitive window for news on the most competitive beat in U.S. sports.
Conversations led them to the idea of mining data that could illustrate how average experience on NFL rosters has changed since 2011, when the league and players union agreed to a contract designed in part to help veterans get a bigger share of revenue. The way veterans are treated, combined with the lack of guaranteed contracts in the league, are two longstanding sticking points between the NFL and union.
Pells had some ideas for finding and organizing the data, and was joined by New York-based data journalist Larry Fenn who started digging. After weeks of scouring season-opening rosters from the last 14 years, Pells and Fenn had the data to exclusively tell several stories around an issue had been told anecdotally in the past, but never backed by this amount of hard data: Average experience in the league was going down consistently as every team was choosing younger players with restricted salaries over veterans who would earn more – even if the veterans were better players. Further, average experience in the league had gone down at every position other than kickers and quarterbacks. And at the most expendable positions, linebacker, running back and center, experience had gone down so much that the average player now doesn’t even reach 4 years, the amount needed to qualify for an NFL pension.
Armed with the data, Pells asked more than a dozen writers in the field to take it to key players on the teams they covered. The reporters set out to find the right players, and to ask them the right questions. Larry Lage, Noah Trister, Teresa Walker, Mike Marot, Mark Long, Dennis Waszak, Josh Dubow, Arnie Stapleton, Will Graves, Barry Wilner and Tim Booth solicited thoughtful, insightful responses about an issue that clearly resonates across the league.
Fenn turned over his data and the draft visualization to Top Stories designer Phil Holm, who produced five sharp, insightful and easy-to-understand illustrations of the data, and helped format the stories and graphics. Pells did a voice-over explainer with the illustrations, working with New York digital producer Trenton Daniel and Deputy Director Darrell Allen to create four videos that were used on social and embedded and hyperlinked into the story.
Meanwhile, the News Research Center helped Pells find a player who fit the profile of the typical 4-year player who is cut just as he became eligible for a larger contract.
Top Stories photo editor Alyssa Goodman created a combo of former player James-Michael Johnson in several different uniforms to illustrate some of the teams that cut him in just a couple seasons.
Gainesville, Florida-based Long did extra reporting at the Pro Bowl to add a chapter to the series focusing on the shortened career lengths of centers, and Atlanta’s Paul Newberry reported out a column foreshadowing storm clouds ahead in upcoming collective-bargaining negotiations. Pells also did another story looking at how Super Bowl champions shed expensive players after winning the title.
When it came time to present the work, the Top Stories desk continued to enhance the package. Deputy Director Shawn Chen worked with Pells, Holm and Giarrusso on storyboarding each piece and planning the stacking, while New York’s Brian Friedman and Philadelphia’s Pete Brown helped edit the project, making it more understandable for non-NFL fans. Goodman scoured the photo archive for the perfect images.
The package was released Sunday through Tuesday before the Super Bowl, the first weekend since August with no meaningful football games. The stories got about double the usage of typical top sports stories, with a combined 1,384 uses online and 4,300 social interactions on Facebook and Twitter. The Twitter Amplify videos we produced from the charts had 225,000 views, generating social media revenue.
“A blueprint for how to plan coverage around big events.”
Sally Buzbee, AP senior vice president and executive editor
In addition to commanding attention across the football landscape, the package won praise throughout the week from senior AP leaders who said the work was as an example of the collaborative ambition we are striving for in 2019 and beyond. Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Sally Buzbee called it a blueprint for how to plan coverage around big events by timing enterprise and breaking news when attention is high.
For using data and creative storytelling to quantify one of the NFL’s central issues and break news during the biggest sports week of the year, Pells, Fenn and Holm share AP’s Best of the Week award.